A sign at the foot of San Juan County, Utah, welcomes visitors to the “world’s greatest outdoor museum.” In the south are the rugged walls and totems of Monument Valley, the image of the West for Americans raised on John Wayne, Looney Tunes, and Marlboro ads. In the east is Lake Powell, the country’s second-largest human-made lake, which draws more than 4 million visitors every year to swim, fish, and water-ski. In the north is Canyonlands, Utah’s largest national park, where hiking trails wind beneath sandstone arches. Three towns dot the county’s more settled eastern edge, tracing the Mormon journey south from Salt Lake City 140 years ago.
Between these landmarks is harsh, arid terrain where each generation of white settlers has tried to make a fickle living: from farming, from livestock, from minerals. Most dramatic was the 1950s uranium rush, when prospectors laid claim to 40 percent of San Juan County and mine profits spurred a building boom. The bust left thousands of abandoned shafts and radioactive waste sites across the plateau and a sprawling road network that connects places no longer worth connecting. But the hope has endured that because San Juan County once made money from the land, it could do so again.